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  • For Florida's School Grading System, A Smart Change With Unexpected Effects

    Written on July 13, 2017

    Last year, we discussed a small but potentially meaningful change that Florida made to its school grading system, one that might have attenuated a long-standing tendency of its student “gains” measures, by design, to favor schools that serve more advantaged students. Unfortunately, this result doesn’t seem to have been achieved.

    Prior to 2014-15, one of the criteria by which Florida students could be counted as having “made gains” was scoring as proficient or better in two consecutive years, without having dropped a level (e.g., from advanced to proficient). Put simply, this meant that students scoring above the proficiency threshold would be counted as making “gains,” even if they in fact made only average or even below average progress, so long as they stayed above the line. As a result of this somewhat crude “growth” measure, schools serving large proportions of students scoring above the proficiency line (i.e., schools in affluent neighborhoods) were virtually guaranteed to receive strong “gains” scores. Such “double counting” in the “gains” measures likely contributed to a very strong relationship between schools’ grades and their students’ socio-economic status (as gauged, albeit roughly, by subsidized lunch eligibility rates).

    Florida, to its credit, changed this “double counting” rule effective in 2014-15. Students who score as proficient in two consecutive years are no longer automatically counted as making “gains.” They must also exhibit some score growth in order to receive the designation.

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  • A Small But Meaningful Change In Florida's School Grades System

    Written on July 28, 2016

    Beginning in the late 1990s, Florida became one of the first states to assign performance ratings to public schools. The purpose of these ratings, which are in the form of A-F grades, is to communicate to the public “how schools are performing relative to state standards.” For elementary and middle schools, the grades are based entirely on standardized testing results.

    We have written extensively here about Florida’s school grading system (see here for just one example), and have used it to illustrate features that can be found in most other states’ school ratings. The primary issue is the heavy reliance that states place on how highly students score on tests, which tells you more about the students the schools serve than about how well they serve those students – i.e., it conflates school and student performance. Put simply, some schools exhibit lower absolute testing performance levels than do other schools, largely because their students enter performing at lower levels. As a result, schools in poorer neighborhoods tend to receive lower grades, even though many of these schools are very successful in helping their students make fast progress during their few short years of attendance.

    Although virtually every states’ school rating system has this same basic structure to varying degrees, Florida’s system warrants special attention, as it was one of the first in the nation and has been widely touted and copied (as well as researched -- see our policy brief for a review of this evidence). It is also noteworthy because it contains a couple of interesting features, one of which exacerbates the aforementioned conflation of student and school performance in a largely unnoticed manner. But, this feature, discussed below, has just been changed by the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE). This correction merits discussion, as it may be a sign of improvement in how policymakers think about these systems.

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  • New Policy Brief: The Evidence On The Florida Education Reform Formula

    Written on June 22, 2015

    The State of Florida is well known in the U.S. as a hotbed of education reform. The package of policies spearheaded by then Governor Jeb Bush during the late 1990s and early 2000s focused, in general, on test-based accountability, competition, and choice. As a whole, they have come to be known as the “Florida Formula for education success,” or simply the “Florida Formula.”

    The Formula has received a great deal of attention, including a coordinated campaign to advocate (in some cases, successfully) for its export to other states. The campaign and its supporters tend to employ as their evidence changes in aggregate testing results, most notably unadjusted increases in proficiency rates on Florida’s state assessment and/or cohort changes on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This approach, for reasons discussed in the policy brief, violates basic principles of causal inference and policy evaluation. Using this method, one could provide evidence that virtually any policy or set of policies “worked” or “didn’t work,” often in the same place and time period.

    Fortunately, we needn’t rely on these crude methods, as there is quite a bit of high quality evidence pertaining to several key components of the Formula, and it provides a basis for tentative conclusions regarding their short- and medium term (mostly test-based impact. Today we published a policy brief, the purpose of which is to summarize this research in a manner that is fair and accessible to policymakers and the public.

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  • The Bewildering Arguments Underlying Florida's Fight Over ELL Test Scores

    Written on November 3, 2014

    The State of Florida is currently engaged in a policy tussle of sorts with the U.S. Department of Education (USED) over Florida’s accountability system. To make a long story short, last spring, Florida passed a law saying that the test scores of English language learners (ELLs) would only count toward schools’ accountability grades (and teacher evaluations) once the ELL students had been in the system for at least two years. This runs up against federal law, which requires that ELLs’ scores be counted after only one year, and USED has indicated that it’s not willing to budge on this requirement. In response, Florida is considering legal action.

    This conflict might seem incredibly inane (unless you’re in one of the affected schools, of course). Beneath the surface, though, this is actually kind of an amazing story.

    Put simply, Florida’s argument against USED's policy of counting ELL scores after just one year is a perfect example of the reason why most of the state's core accountability measures (not to mention those of NCLB as a whole) are so inappropriate: Because they judge schools’ performance based largely on where their students’ scores end up without paying any attention to where they start out.

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  • Redesigning Florida's School Report Cards

    Written on October 9, 2014

    The Foundation for Excellence in Education, an organization that advocates for education reform in Florida, in particular the set of policies sometimes called the "Florida Formula," recently announced a competition to redesign the “appearance, presentation and usability” of the state’s school report cards. Winners of the competition will share prize money totaling $35,000.

    The contest seems like a great idea. Improving the manner in which education data are presented is, of course, a laudable goal, and an open competition could potentially attract a diverse group of talented people. As regular readers of this blog know, however, I am not opposed to sensibly-designed test-based accountability policies, but my primary concern about school rating systems is focused mostly on the quality and interpretation of the measures used therein. So, while I support the idea of a competition for improving the design of the report cards, I am hoping that the end result won't just be a very attractive, clever instrument devoted to the misinterpretation of testing data.

    In this spirit, I would like to submit four simple graphs that illustrate, as clearly as possible and using the latest data from 2014, what Florida’s school grades are actually telling us. Since the scoring and measures vary a bit between different types of schools, let’s focus on elementary schools.

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  • A Research-Based Case For Florida's Education Reforms

    Written on September 26, 2013

    Advocates of the so-called “Florida Formula," a package of market-based reforms enacted throughout the 1990s and 2000s, some of which are now spreading rapidly in other states, traveled to Michigan this week to make their case to the state’s lawmakers, with particular emphasis on Florida's school grading system. In addition to arguments about accessibility and parental involvement, their empirical (i.e., test-based) evidence consisted largely of the standard, invalid claims that cross-sectional NAEP increases prove the reforms’ effectiveness, along with a bonus appearance of the argument that since Florida starting grading schools, the grades have improved, even though this is largely (and demonstrably) a result of changes in the formula.

    As mentioned in a previous post, I continue to be perplexed at advocates’ insistence on using this "evidence," even though there is a decent amount of actual rigorous policy research available, much of it positive.

    So, I thought it would be fun, though slightly strange, for me to try on my market-based reformer cap, and see what it would look like if this kind of testimony about the Florida reforms was actually research-based (at least the test-based evidence). Here’s a very rough outline of what I came up with:

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  • The FCAT Writing, On The Wall

    Written on May 28, 2013

    The annual release of state testing data makes the news in every state, but Florida is one of those places where it is to some degree a national story.*

    Well, it’s getting to be that time of year again. Last week, the state released its writing exam (FCAT 2.0 Writing) results for 2013 (as well as the math and reading results for third graders only).  The Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) press release noted: “With significant gains in writing scores, Florida’s teachers and students continue to show that higher expectations and support at home and in the classroom enable every child to succeed.” This interpretation of the data was generally repeated without scrutiny in the press coverage of the results.

    Putting aside the fact that the press release incorrectly calls the year-to-year changes “gains” (they are actually comparisons of two different groups of students; see here), the FLDOE's presentation of the FCAT Writing results, though common, is, at best, incomplete and, at worst, misleading. Moreover, the important issues in this case are applicable in all states, and unusually easy to illustrate using the simple data released to the public.

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  • Through The Sunshine State's Accountability Systems, Darkly

    Written on February 20, 2013

    Some Florida officials are still having trouble understanding why they're finding no relationship between the grades schools receive and the evaluation ratings of teachers in those schools. For his part, new Florida education Commissioner Tony Bennett is also concerned. According to the article linked above, he acknowledges (to his credit) that the two measures are different, but is also considering "revis[ing] the models to get some fidelity between the two rankings."

    This may be turning into a potentially risky situation. As discussed in a recent post, it is important to examine the results of the new teacher evaluations, but there is no reason one would expect to find a strong relationship between these ratings and the school grades, as they are in large part measuring different things (and imprecisely at that). The school grades are mostly (but not entirely) driven by how highly students score, whereas teacher evaluations are, to the degree possible, designed to be independent of these absolute performance levels. Florida cannot validate one system using the other.

    However, as also mentioned in that post, this is not to say that there should be no relationship at all. For example, both systems include growth-oriented measures (albeit using very different approaches). In addition, schools with lower average performance levels sometimes have trouble recruiting and retaining good teachers. Due to these and other factors, the reasonable expectation is to find some association overall, just not one that's extremely strong. And that's basically what one finds, even using the same set of results upon which the claims that there is no relationship are based.

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  • Why Did Florida Schools' Grades Improve Dramatically Between 1999 and 2005?

    Written on February 11, 2013

    ** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

    Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was in Virginia last week, helping push for a new law that would install an “A-F” grading system for all public schools in the commonwealth, similar to a system that has existed in Florida for well over a decade.

    In making his case, Governor Bush put forth an argument about the Florida system that he and his supporters use frequently. He said that, right after the grades went into place in his state, there was a drop in the proportion of D and F schools, along with a huge concurrent increase in the proportion of A schools. For example, as Governor Bush notes, in 1999, only 12 percent of schools got A's. In 2005, when he left office, the figure was 53 percent. The clear implication: It was the grading of schools (and the incentives attached to the grades) that caused the improvements.

    There is some pretty good evidence (also here) that the accountability pressure of Florida’s grading system generated modest increases in testing performance among students in schools receiving F's (i.e., an outcome to which consequences were attached), and perhaps higher-rated schools as well. However, putting aside the serious confusion about what Florida’s grades actually measure, as well as the incorrect premise that we can evaluate a grading policy's effect by looking at the simple distribution of those grades over time, there’s a much deeper problem here: The grades changed in part because the criteria changed.

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  • Making Sense Of Florida's School And Teacher Performance Ratings

    Written on January 28, 2013

    Last week, Florida State Senate President Don Gaetz (R – Niceville) expressed his skepticism about the recently-released results of the state’s new teacher evaluation system. The senator was particularly concerned about his comparison of the ratings with schools’ “A-F” grades. He noted, “If you have a C school, 90 percent of the teachers in a C school can’t be highly effective. That doesn’t make sense."

    There’s an important discussion to be had about the results of both the school and teacher evaluation systems, and the distributions of the ratings can definitely be part of that discussion (even if this issue is sometimes approached in a superficial manner). However, arguing that we can validate Florida’s teacher evaluations using its school grades, or vice-versa, suggests little understanding of either. Actually, given the design of both systems, finding a modest or even weak association between them would make pretty good sense.

    In order to understand why, there are two facts to consider.

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